We modern entertainment consumers have universes at our fingertips. Over the course of more than a generation, many, if not most, of us have become jaded to spectacles that were awe-inspiring when science fiction started becoming popular in the middle of the 20th century. But the dazzle, the scale, the concepts — none of it is new anymore. In the 21st century, the nature of the “alien” has changed. It is other people who have become mysterious and unknowable. We’ve all felt helpless in relationships with people behaving inexplicably — and that shared experience is Helen Marshall’s focus and the hook that makes her work so fascinating.
However you define “classic” science fiction, Marshall’s stories are pretty much the direct opposite. Whereas traditional SF gazes out at the most remote corners of the universe, the stories in Gifts for the One Who Comes After examine our most intimate bonds and how they affect us and our place in the universe. In old school science fiction, the sense of wonder comes from external sources. But the magic and mystery in Marshall’s stories springs from deep within us and most especially within our relationships with our families — the triggering incidents seldom much more extraordinary in their own right than bad ideas, deeply rooted superstitions or acts of emotional cruelty, either willful or unintentional. In stories like “The Zhanell Adler Brass Spyglass,” “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects” and “The Gallery of the Eliminated,” she creates dread and horror simply by showing us the incomprehensible adult world as seen through the eyes of a child. It is the yearning to understand — to appreciate the caprices of someone else’s mind — that pulls the reader into and through these stories.
Thanks to the author’s skill, I could share the confusion and desperation of the characters, and feel emotions as familiar and implacable as the tedium, frustration and jealousy that envelope them. I became rooted in the narrowness of her worlds and bound by their dispassionate limitations. And therein lies the crux. There is more gossip than action in stories like “Secondhand Magic,” more domesticity than adventure. In stories like “Ship House” and “All My World, a Fishhook,” the worldview is unbearably claustrophobic and sometimes it feels almost forensic — cutting the characters adrift and leaving them alone and emotionally distant — despite or even because of the overbearing presence of the “loved ones” whose intentions are usually good or at least benign. This can emotionally undermine her narratives — the very lack of connection that is at the core of so many of her stories runs the risk of distancing the reader as well.
Everyone who enjoys reading owes it to themselves to at least check out Marshall’s prose, because she is on a par with other masters who came out of the science fiction community like Karen Joy Fowler. But the fact is that even when Marshall is writing about shrink rays (“Supply Limited, Act Now”) and alien spaceships (“A Brief History of Science Fiction”) — or wearing the raiments of another genre entirely — as in the noirish “I’m the Lady of Good Times, She Said” — they are metaphors for growing up human and having to face realities that are disappointing at the least, and soul-destroying at their worst.
As a younger reader, I would have been blown away by Marshall’s profundity and her books may well have earned a permanent place of honour on my bookshelves. But these days, I am drawn more to escapism and exciting plots than I am to deft turns of phrase and cogent observations of the human condition. And while the worlds Marshall creates are easily worth the visit, I have come to realize that her work is something I admire but don’t necessarily enjoy. In order to keep this particular science fiction fan coming back, I will have to see some more good old “genre” fiction from her: horror that scares me, fantasy that enchants me or science fiction that presents new ideas and evokes a sense of wonder.